There are eight staircases, three elevators, 28 fireplaces, 35 bathrooms, swimming pool, bowling lanes, and 132 spaces that have been renovated numerous times to be bedrooms, music room, art studio, nursery, offices, games room and on it goes. It is both a public building and private home that at various times has been called the President's Place or the Executive Mansion, but was officially named the White House in 1901.
Presiding over the mansion is a role for the First Lady; individuals who historically have either relished the role, or performed their necessary duties but felt unsettled by the absence of any real job description amidst a lengthy list of expectations.
While the First Family can enjoy all the amenities offered by the White House, there are a lot of expenses they pay out-of-pocket. Some Presidents leave office carrying huge debts. But not all. Not the Trumans, thanks to First Lady Bess whose husband was President from 1945-1953.
As Mrs. Truman sat with staff each day to discuss menus, upcoming events, or the maintenance of the White House, it was clear frugality was to be the watchword. She was able to remember if someone had turned down an entrée at a dinner the night before and would request the uneaten portion be used in the day's salad, or untouched desserts be saved. One day when she was out of town, the President went fishing with friends. He asked the kitchen staff to prepare a snack they could enjoy on the water. With little wiggle room in the supplies that week, staff were thrilled to find a forgotten ice cream dessert that had been delivered in honor of the President's birthday the week before. They purchased some dry ice, packed the dessert, and sent the basket on its way. A few days later, when Mrs. Truman was going through the ledgers, she spotted an expenditure she knew nothing about and put the question to the staff. It was the 75 cents spent on dry ice.
While some might think her frugal living was extreme, she knew where all the money was going--her own--as well as the government budget designated to run the White House. We sure could use a few like her today—public servants who treat the public purse with diligence and care.
She didn't throw as many parties or live as glamorously as other First Ladies, and history doesn't hold her in the same fairytale mystique. So why am I so fascinated by her? Because I almost wasn't. It all stems from a book about White House staff who worked directly with First Ladies, documenting a changing role alongside a changing nation. As I got to the section about Bess Truman I was tempted to skip past her pages and move on to someone more…fascinating. Notable. But I kept reading and within a few pages became rather intrigued by this understated woman.
I don't know how Mrs. Truman would fare in the court of public opinion today. She didn't make herself readily available to the media, she didn't take on special causes but instead lent her time to a number of organizations, and she preferred quiet evenings in, rather than seeking the Washington spotlight. And she held some views that would not go over well today. She holds that in common with many historical figures. But she was a trusted adviser to her husband and widely respected for her quiet resolve during difficult years.
History holds people in higher or lesser regard depending on who is doing the narrating and which aspects of their life fits that narrative best, whether entirely true or not. Long after their death, opinions about contribution and even character strive to shape our contemporary image of them; an image whose accuracy is suspect or even unfair, and whose context is rarely explained. The myopic perspective does them, and history itself, a disservice.
I wouldn't have had much in common with Mrs. Truman politically, but I think I would have quite liked her. She didn't need to be the center of attention – but instead put herself at the center of the work. She didn't seek credit for what was being done—but ensured the work was being done well. Not in it for what she could get out of it– but instead doing what was in the best interest of the public good.
History doesn't always put the right people on pedestals. Nor does it always take the right ones down. People are far more complex than that and the telling of history needs to have the breadth to take that all in. We need to be committed to the richness of the bigger stories, and far more frugal with the selective editing. That's my outlook.